Atheists protested prayer event in Palmetto park. Here’s how some residents responded

Prayers touch on unity, community at National Day of Prayer celebration in Palmetto

National Day of Prayer is celebrated at Sutton Park in Palmetto on May 3, 2018. This year’s theme was unity.
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National Day of Prayer is celebrated at Sutton Park in Palmetto on May 3, 2018. This year’s theme was unity.

May 2 marks the annual National Day of Prayer and Palmetto’s event at Sutton Park will go on as scheduled, despite an attempt by an atheist group to stop the city’s involvement.

Several Palmetto residents have made sure the annual event continues by agreeing to pay rent for the use of the park.

City Hall has long been involved with the event, offering space and advertising on its website. Elected officials often speak about their faith at the event.

Not everyone in Palmetto has been very happy about that and a small group filed a complaint last year with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a national atheist organization, which in turn threatened the city with legal action if elected representatives continued to leave the impression that they were using their official positions and city resources to endorse the event.

FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel said in September that the city needed to stop advertising the event on its website and to charge rent for use of a public park. The group also suggested that elected officials not attend in their official capacities.

The city has not advertised this year’s National Day of Prayer on its website, but Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant was defiant at any notion she would not attend. However, she did stress she would do so as a private citizen, taking the appropriate time off of work.

Hundreds gather across Manatee County for the National Day of Prayer event.

“When that story went out in September, the next day I got phone call after phone call,” Bryant said Wednesday. “From Sunday school classes to a businessman in Bradenton asking how much we needed and he would write a check. I think it’s their right to do that and to have a public event like that and I’m hoping people will step up and come out and make a statement to their right to have a national day of celebration, wherever they choose to have one.

“The city no longer has a role in this, but I personally do and will attend the National Day of Prayer until my dying day,” Bryant said.

FFRF “always keeps an eye on these things,” Seidel said. “It’s very easy to cross the line. I don’t want to make it seem like people are doing it on purpose because very often they aren’t. Where it gets confusing is that if you are a public official, you can’t use your office, title or resources to promote a religious event.

“It’s a line we often see crossed,” he said.

What the FFRF and the local residents who complained will be watching on May 2 is people of faith praying for the community and nation as they always have on the National Day of Prayer — and at Sutton Park beginning at 9 a.m.

The cost to rent the park for an hour long event is $300, so it was never a monetary issue.

People stepping up to offer thousands if needed, Bryant said, “speaks volumes for this community. The right to gather and celebrate faith is our whole foundation. For people to let others who want to dictate and disallow freedoms and opportunities, to have someone challenge your right to gather and celebrate, well, I say go out and express your freedom. Stand up and take advantage of your freedom.”

Manatee County's oldest and largest elementary school took part in the National Day of Prayer on Thursday.

For the most part, the event has always been privately run. PalmettoBUILD, which focuses on marriage and family spiritual health, leads the effort to organize the speakers. The Palmetto National Day of Prayer Facebook page is run by Jason Lane, lead pastor at the Skyway Community Chapel.

Lane has been doing “pop up prayers” almost daily leading up to the May 2 event. He’s led prayers outside of Palmetto High School, the Palmetto Police Department, the Little League baseball fields at Blackstone Park, downtown Palmetto and other locations.

“The National Day of Prayer is a day for followers of Christ to gather in unity and pray for the blessing of our country,” a Facebook post reads. “This year’s theme ‘Love One Another’ is a call for every believer to model the love of Christ.”

Bryant said PalmettoBuild and the city’s pastoral group have always been in charge of the event and various businesses and individuals contribute things like snacks and coffee.

The Manatee County Ministers Association conducts another National Day of Prayer event at the Manatee courthouse square at 11:30 a.m.

“The thing is, the city’s not paying for anything,” Bryant said. “I really hope people will come to Palmetto or the one at the courthouse in Bradenton or any of the ones going on around here and across the state to make a statement that your freedom to gather and express your faith is a right that should not be taken for granted.”